- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Peter Feaver’s excellent post earlier this week assessing the Obama administration’s foreign policy as a political issue argued that "where Obama has continued along policy lines laid out by Bush, he has achieved success, but where he has sought to make dramatic changes, he has failed."
I am struck by an additional dimension of this point. Not only have Obama’s foreign policy successes have come from adopting specific Bush policies, but these successes have also come from adopting many of the strategic doctrines of the Bush administration. I doubt my Democratic friends will like to hear this, but it bears noting for the record and as a cautionary tale against campaign hubris. Bush administration strategic principles that were either disparaged or disregarded by candidate Obama have now been embraced by Obama. These include:
- The preemptive use of force, which is the strategic doctrine behind the Administration’s campaign of preventive drone strikes against terrorists in places like Pakistan and Yemen likely plotting against the United States
- Selective unilateralism, which defined the Obama Administration’s operation against Osama bin Laden, as well as much of the framework governing the drone operations. Not to mention, less favorably, some of the Administration’s decision-making on Afghanistan without much coordination with frustrated NATO allies
- Strong executive authority, which exemplified the Administration’s defiance of Congress for the Libya war (er, "operation") as well as much of the Administration’s counterterrorism legal infrastructure
- Democracy promotion over autocratic stability, which President Obama at last acknowledged in his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring
- Great Power relations based on shared values, which helps explain why after its initial "realistic" embrace of China and Russia, the Obama White House eventually pivoted and realized that fellow democracies like Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, and Australia are more reliable friends
Why does this matter? Is this just plaintive pleading for recognition or snarky "I told you so’s" from ex-Bush staff? No. There are at least two reasons the Obama Administration should consider this seriously and publicly acknowledge its embrace of so many of Bush’s strategic principles.
First, with campaign season upon us, this is a final fleeting opportunity to demonstrate bipartisanship. Obama’s euphoric campaign promises to unite the nation and pursue bipartisanship are just nostalgic memories of dashed hopes. Unfortunately, as Pete Wehner has ably documented, the president has followed a partisan and divisive domestic and economic agenda with a campaign strategy questioning the patriotism of Republicans. Foreign policy represents Obama’s last legitimate opportunity to demonstrate genuine bipartisanship, and a gracious acknowledgement of his agreement with Bush’s strategic principles would be a great place to start.
Second, this is the time to think about Obama’s own legacy. It is far too early to predict the outcome of the 2012 election and the possibility of a second Obama term, but with half of the American people expressing disapproval with his performance and 75 percent saying the country is "on the wrong track," at a minimum a one-term presidency is a very real possibility. Obama’s domestic and economic policies are not likely to be regarded well by history. His best hope for a positive legacy lies in foreign policy, especially if his eventual successor in the White House adopts the framework he (or she) inherits.
And here I will pivot from my previous skepticism about the Eisenhower analogy and say that in this narrow sense Peter Feaver may have a point. As far as historical analogies go, Obama has an opportunity to play Eisenhower to Bush as Truman, as the candidate who campaigned against a foreign policy framework that he then adopted once in office.
This does not at all mean that Obama’s foreign policies have been unqualified successes. In contrast to the positives described above, there are also the failures and deficiencies, including the Israel-Palestinian relationship, the continuing Iranian nuclear program, frayed relations with many of our allies and partner nations, missed opportunities in the Arab Spring, an anemic freedom agenda, "leading from behind," squandered soft power — the list goes on. Hopefully the administration will reflect carefully on what seems to have worked, what seems not to have worked, and why. The answer might be revealing.